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Illinois Could Expand Access To Higher Education In Prison Through Pell Grants

Seven men completed an entrepreneurship program at Hill Correctional Center in April 2019. But waitlists to take classes like this are long and preference is given to those who have the shortest sentences.

WASHINGTON – Federal financial aid to people in prison was quietly restored as part of a COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress last month. The U.S. Department of Education has until 2023 to reinstate Pell Grant access to people in prison — which was previously banned under the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton. Pell Grants are typically awarded to low-income undergraduate students.

The federal government estimates that about 23,000 incarcerated people lost access to Pell Grants, because of the 1994 crime bill. 

Illinois has only nine higher education in prison programs at seven correctional institutions, according to the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison. Most, if not all, are funded through private institutions and grants. But Margaret diZerega, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice, says the restoration of Pell Grants to incarcerated people could increase the number of colleges and universities teaching inside prisons.

Two years ago, the research and policy institute published a report that found Illinois could save between $8 million and $26 million annually on incarceration costs if Pell Grant eligibility were restored to inmates, because research shows access to education inside prisons reduces recidivism.

Illinois Newsroom spoke with diZerega about the change in federal financial aid policy, and how it might affect availability and access to higher education in prisons.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Lee Gaines: Can you give us a brief history when Pell grants were denied to people in prison, all the way up to how this ended up getting passed as part of COVID-19 relief legislation?

Margaret diZerega: Prior to 1994, people in prison were eligible for federal Pell Grants, and they could use their Pell eligibility to go to college. We saw a couple hundred college programs operating in prison at that time. And then, with the 1994 crime bill, people in state and federal prison lost their eligibility for federal Pell Grants. And overnight, the majority of those programs closed. There have been a few that, through private foundation dollars and some state contracts, were able to be maintained. But the majority of people in prison were not in facilities where they could enroll in post secondary education. 

Fast forward to 2015. The Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative through the U.S. Department of Education. The Department of Education has experimental sites authority that allows them to test the use of Pell grants in different ways. When Second Chance Pell was announced in 2015, this was the first time that we were nearing the possibility of really bringing Pell Grants back into prison environments. And in 2016, 67 colleges were selected by the U.S. Department of Education, and they were allowed to administer Pell Grants for the first time since 1994. 

Then, we had a change in administration. And Second Chance Pell continued to receive a lot of support from the Trump administration. We now have 130 colleges across [the country] that are teaching in prison and able to access students’ Pell eligibility to cover the cost of their tuition. 

The growth of Second Chance Pell, the excitement around it, the fact that we had, you know, thousands of students enrolled in college, really contributed to the political momentum. We saw through the two presidential administrations clear bipartisan support for this issue, and that was really reflected in the Congress as well. So two other important markers: one is that in July of 2020, the House appropriations bill included Pell reinstatement for all people in prison as a policy rider. And then that same language was ultimately part of the Senate appropriations bill. And that’s what was signed into law at the end of December. So through this big budget package that included COVID relief and many other things, the ban on Pell Grant access for people in prison was lifted, which is a very, very significant achievement.

LG: Do we know when this takes effect, like will people in prison be able to apply for Pell Grants immediately?

MD: The law states that it goes into effect by 2023. But it could go into effect earlier if the Department of Education does so. So it is not yet in effect, but Second Chance Pell continues to operate until the law goes into effect.

LG: Do we have any idea how many people in prison are currently enrolled in some form of post secondary programming? And do we also have any idea how the restoration of Pell Grants will affect the number of people in prison taking part in post secondary programming?

MD: We put out a policy brief last spring looking at the number of Second Chance Pell students enrolled at the time. Incarcerated students, since the start of Second Chance Pell in 2016, have earned more than 4500 bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees, post secondary diplomas and certificates. We know there are many other students going to college in prison through other kinds of funding sources. So that doesn’t include all of those programs. It’s hard to predict, you know, once full Pell reinstatement happens, how many students will be enrolled at any one time. There’s a lot of different factors. But our estimate would be somewhere around 35,000 students.

LG: Currently in Illinois, according to the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, there are about nine college in prison programs operating in the state. The majority of them are offering this programming without any compensation. They’re not collecting tuition. The state’s Department of Corrections isn’t paying them to do this. They’re doing this with grants and donations and other funding sources. I’m curious how restoring Pell grants will impact those programs, but also whether it might be an incentive for more universities and colleges to get into post secondary education and prison.

MD:  Kankakee Community College in Illinois was selected for Second Chance Pell in April of 2020. So they’re the one Illinois college that would be considered active in the experiment right now. To your question about the incentive: we know that for both rounds of Second Chance Pell, nearly 200 colleges applied. That suggests there was a lot greater demand than the number of colleges that were selected for teaching in prison. This could create opportunities for those colleges that wanted to teach in prison, but that were not selected for Second Chance Pell. And I think that the fact that Pell reinstatement would give colleges a reliable way of envisioning how students are paying for tuition, I think that’ll allow colleges to chart a real path for either expanding current programming or for new colleges to come in. Whereas, with Second Chance Pell, there was often a question mark around how long the experiment would last. I think having Pell reinstatement as a reliable source of funding for students may change how some of the colleges determine whether to enter this space, or how to grow existing programs.

LG: Obviously we can see that Pell Grant eligibility will potentially have a beneficial impact on incarcerated people themselves. They’ll have access to a set of dollars they didn’t have before. And also, like you said, it will provide some stability, some assurance to the colleges that get into this space, that they have some way of funding this programming. But I’m curious if you could elaborate on the benefit to society at large by giving people in prison access to this resource again?

MD: Sure, I could talk about that all day. We know that expanding access to post secondary education in prison provides incarcerated people with greater opportunity when they return to their families and their communities. It helps cut state spending on prisons, given the connection between post secondary education programs and reduced recidivism. And it can really be a catalyst in transforming the lives of students and their families. I’ve spoken with people who talked about getting their college education while they’re incarcerated, and the conversations they’re having with their children or their other family members, encouraging them to pursue college, helping to shift some of the messages they may have been told as high school kids about whether they were quote unquote, college material. A sharing with their family members and their children that they are college material, and they should pursue this, if that’s what they want to do, and here’s how you do it. We know that Black and brown people are disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system. And so lifting this ban on Pell Grant access is a way to address some of those inequities and obstacles to successful reentry. We also see Pell reinstatement as a step toward racial equity and a part of a broader set of strategies to address the disproportionate harms to Black and brown communities by the justice system.

Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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